Look to the 1960s for the Real Inspiration for Today's Labour Party

There was pretty decent joke doing the rounds at the Labour conference in Brighton. "What time is Jeremy Corbyn's speech?"

To which the reply was: "1983".

As as I said, it's not a bad gag. It just happens to be 20 years out.

The fundamental misconception about the Corbyn and John McDonnell agenda is they want to take the Labour Party back to the 1980s.

In fact, they want to go much further back in time than that: to the 1960s.

It is Harold Wilson, not Tony Benn, who is their lodestar.

And the Benn they aspire to emulate is not the factional, self-regarding Benn who ran for the deputy leadership in 1981 but the dynamic, pragmatic Benn who was Wilson's Postmaster General and Minister of Technology.

McDonnell's speech to the party conference borrowed heavily from Wilson's thinking in the early 1960s.

The end goal is to use public money in the private sector "to stimulate technological advance."The then Labour leader wanted an economic policy based on muscular state intervention combined with planning - a word which had obvious Soviet connotations but was widely accepted across the main parties.

Like Wilson, McDonnell regards, anachronistically or not, the balance of payments as his preferred economic indicator.

And like his predecessor, the Shadow Chancellor is already looking at forming a Department for Economic Affairs to usurp what he sees as the overbearing power of the Treasury.

The end goal, as Ben Pimlott, describes in his unsurpassed biography of Wilson, is to use public money in the private sector "to stimulate technological advance."

In the 1960s this led to the virtual creation of the British computer industry, the development of the Harrier and Nimrod planes and the largest investment in R&D of any advanced country except the US.

Obviously, there are some similarities which cannot be drawn. The most frequent charge against Wilson - that he was a politician without principle - is unlikely to be laid at the door of Corbyn.

Harold Wilson may have been from the left of the party whose one act of rebellion was his 1951 resignation from the Cabinet in protest at NHS charges yet he was, unlike the current leadership, a man happy with the conservative mores of flag, faith and family.

(Though both Corbyn and Wilson share an empathy for their provincial backgrounds).

Yet, it is not just Wilson's economic thinking which has captivated Corbyn and McDonnell.

Privately, they speak in glowing admiration, almost awe, at how he managed to keep the most fractious of parties together.

Wilson was, of course, operating in an age of Labour giants whose intellectual fire power and political acumen has probably never been surpassed.

Corbyn will require Wilsonian levels of guile if he is stave off insurrection and maintain unityHis Cabinets included Richard Crossman, Tony Crosland, Jim Callaghan, George Brown, Tony Benn, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Barbara Castle to name a few.

His achievement in forging a team of such exceptional personalities, none of whom were unaware of their capabilities, and nullifying various leaderships challenges is a testament to his talent.

Corbyn may be dealing with lesser characters but he will still require Wilsonian levels of guile if he is stave off insurrection and maintain some form of unity.

His particularly malleable approach to discipline may have been forced upon him by his own record as a serial rebel.

Yet he will may wish to learn from how Wilson craftily managed to keep his Cabinet together, while allowing them to vote with their conscience, in the 1975 European Union.

There is one other aspect of Wilsonia which Corbyn and McDonnell may come to share: his paranoia.

The spectre of Harry Perkins - the left-wing PM destabilised by the press magnates, MI5 and the rest of the establishment in Chris Mullin's A Very British Coup - is already being talked about.

When an unnamed general is quoted in a Sunday newspaper about the British Army staging a coup if Corbyn becomes PM you can see why the could quickly develop a Wilson-like persecution complex.

Perkins in the end was undone because of Labour collaborators worked with the powers that be to bring about his downfall.

Corbyn and McDonnell may have a hero. Whether they ever get to be him is another matter.

Jason Beattie is the Political Editor of the Daily Mirror

More about the author

About the author

Jason Beattie is the political editor of the Daily Mirror. He has worked in Westminster for 15 years including spells on the Birmingham Post, Scotsman and the London Evening Standard. A hispanophile, he has also written for El Mundo and has a deep interest in Spanish and Catalan history, culture and food.

Follow Jason on Twitter.

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